Friday, June 21, 2013

Three On The Inside: Primates

Once again, Jim Ottaviani has created an incredibly compelling narrative surrounding bold, innovative scientists in Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute' Galdikas. Once again, however, he is ill-served by his illustrator. Maris Wicks has a cute, clear line that, when combined with the slickness of the coloring typical to many First Second books, gives Ottaviani's story a twee quality that I don't think he was aiming for. I'm not sure if Ottaviani was going after an all-ages audience when he started wrote this book about a very earthy subject, but it feels like it was shaped that way at times in terms of how adult matters are shuttled off-panel. I'm all for stylization in an otherwise straightforward narrative, but I was repeatedly put off by how Wicks drew people, making them look less like adults than big kids. On the other hand, I was impressed by the way she drew animals; there was a note at the end about how hard she worked to get her drawings of the animals as accurate as possible, and she did a fine job in capturing the essences of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. Those segments of the book really crackled on the page, as Wicks labored to capture the quiet dignity of the animals in their natural habitats, as opposed to how we think of seeing primates at a zoo. That's why it was so unfortunate that she wasn't able to do the same for the three trailblazing scientists that Ottaviani went to such great lengths to humanize. While the animals are an important component of the book, Primates is really about the three women at the heart of the research and their unusual stories.

The book details how renowned anthropologist/archeologist Louis Leakey sought out and assisted three very different women in researching primates in Africa. Jane Goodall was sent to monitor chimpanzee behavior, and her observations changed a number of assumptions regarding primates. For example, she observed chimps using tools and eating meat, with the former distinction once being an assumed dividing line between human and ape. Following Goodall was Dian Fossey, who not only observed gorilla behavior but became a famed and fierce conservationist and protector of the primate. Her murder was glossed over in the book for some reason, even though Ottaviani was careful to note that her fractious personality alienated both friends but especially her many foes in the world of poaching. The final scientist discussed was Birute' Galdikas, who made a number of important discoveries regarding the orangutan. She was the only member of the trio that Leakey didn't try to hit on (she was married), an interesting anecdote that humanizes Leakey and cements his reputation as a sort of smooth talker in general. Ottaviani does a fine job of fictionalizing certain aspects of their story, neatly summarizing their accomplishments and focusing on their unconventional paths to becoming scientists. That's especially true given that it was so difficult for women to pursue degrees in science at the time, which is a testament to the fire and intellect of these three remarkable women as well as the vision that Leakey had in finding the right opportunities for them. I just wish that the visual aspect of the story had clashed less with Ottaviani's narrative.

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